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Media opportunity: The distinctive click patterns sperm whale clans make to communicate are also used to mark their culture: international research team

Posted by Communications and Marketing on September 8, 2022 in News

They are the charismatic, highly social members of the whale world, known for their distinctive clicking sounds that have long been suspected to identify their cultural group membership.

Sperm whales communicate with Morse code-like series of clicks called codas, and whales that use similar coda ‘dialects’ belong to the same cultural group or ‘vocal clan.’

But are those codas similar to human ethnic group markers -- like clothing or dialects -- and are they used to distinguish one clan from another?

An international team of 27 scientists led by researchers from Dalhousie University and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands set out to answer those questions by studying sperm whales on an unprecedented geographic scale.

The team members pooled their acoustic datasets of Pacific Ocean sperm whales, allowing them to examine click patterns across 23 locations, from Canada to New Zealand and Japan to South America. Members extracted over 23,000 codas and determined how many of those were used as identity codas by whale clans.

The team identified seven sperm whale vocal clans across the Pacific, each with their own dialect and identity codas. Their findings are published today in the journal, PNAS.

Taylor Hersh, a postdoctoral researcher now at the Max Planck Institute, conducted the research while a PhD student at Dal with Hal Whitehead, a professor and marine biologist at the university. Both are available to discuss the findings and how they suggest that whales from different clans are using identity codas to distinguish “us” vs. “them.”

Photos are available here. Please credit Maurício Cantor of Oregon State University.


Author contacts:

Hal Whitehead
Department of Biology
Dalhousie University

Taylor Hersh
Max Planck Institute
Phone: +31 6 13 09 52 73

Media contact:

Alison Auld 
Senior Research Reporter 
Communications, Marketing and Creative Services 
Dalhousie University 
Cell: 1-902-220-0491 


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